There have been several news stories and articles recently that expose the dangers of unchecked corporate greed and the impact it has on the residents of distressed business districts and rural America. If you live in a nicer part of town or in a posh suburb, you may have no idea that the leaders of the dollar chain stores (like Dollar Tree and Dollar General) have a corporate strategy that causes economic distress and an unhealthy dependency.
A recent report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance discusses the systematic destruction of our communities by the clustering of discount dollar stores in such a way as to kill any existing locally-owned grocer or retailer. Once the local competition is decimated and gives up, the dollar chains are happy to have residents surviving on its unhealthy packaged foods and inferior quality products.
People are left without access to fresh food and locally owned stores that help money circulate in a community longer. For every $100 spent at a locally-owned business versus a national chain, $25 more per $100 stays in the local economy. That may not sound like much, but it is the difference between a community that thrives and one that struggles. The tangibles that are lost when there are too few dollars staying in the community are things like good teachers, firefighters, local charitable organizations, and an active and engaged citizenry.
Because these chains serve as a deterrent to anyone wanting to offer a locally-owned grocery store that offers fresh food, they facilitate the spiral of economic decline. Daily life becomes so much harder when access to good quality food requires you to leave your community. When you’re forced to leave your community to get the goods and services that you need, you’re unwittingly contributing to the speedy exit of money that could be circulating in the local economy longer.
Dollar Tree and Dollar General operate more than 34,000 stores in the United States. This is more than McDonald’s, Starbucks, Target and Walmart combined. The plan is to add 10s of thousands more stores.
It gets worse. In a recent newsletter from Judd at Popular Information, we learn that since 2017, just Dollar General alone has received $15 million in fines for safety violations. $15 million sounds like a lot of money but it only represents about 4% of sales. This means that paying fines becomes a cost of doing business. It is not an actual deterrent to jeopardizing worker safety.
92% of dollar general workforce earns less than $15,000 annually. In 2021, the median employee earned $17,773. That’s about $5,000, over above the poverty line. But the low wages don’t apply to those at the top. Throughout 2021, the company spent $2.5 billion on stock buybacks for executives and shareholders.
There’s not a single place in the United States, where an adult without children can meet their basic necessities on an hourly wage of $15 an hour. We’re getting to the point where our big mega-corporation employees are the biggest growing demographic with workers that are on federal assistance. If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. We can’t have a strong middle class in this country if too many people are living in a perpetual state of scarcity. This growing disparity is a major threat to American democracy and our inalienable right to pursue self-reliance.
Fortunately, some communities are saying “No” to dollar chain store economics. Since 2019, at least 75 communities have blocked proposed dollar stores with more than 50 of those occurring between January 2021 and the end of 2022. At least 54 cities and towns have gone even further. They’ve enacted laws that sharply restricted new dollar stores, barring them from opening within one or two miles of an existing store and at least one town StoneCrest Georgia, has imposed a total ban on new dollar stores.
Awareness of the ripple effects of mega-corporation greed and destruction is a great start. We are lucky to have advocates and economic development departments and organizations calling for an end to deliberate food deserts. The other thing we still have in this country is a healthy supply of entrepreneurial-minded people who are wanting to fight back. Ingenuity is alive and well. If we can solve the issue of funding for small businesses that are looking to have a positive impact in their community and be disruptive about the status quo, we can restore hope in economically depressed areas.
I will share three different businesses with you that are working on doing well by doing good. They represent three different examples of how the founders are addressing the problems they see in a manner that expands the greater good. The offerings described were listed on Crowdfund Main Street or its local label site, Crowdfund Montana in the Spring of 2023.
I’ve been working with two women from the far northwest corner of Montana in a former logging and mining town named Troy. One of the women Shawna Kelsey is a native of Troy and has been very involved in local economic development and politics. Her co-founder Chris Boyd, is a wildlife biologist. For the last several years This pair has been experimenting with local innovation that respects the resources and quality of life in this majestic area. Troy is unique in that it is surrounded by vast stretches of public lands. The founders know that the area will never grow substantially in population and work force because of all the public land. For them, this reality meant that whatever business endeavor they decided to take on to bring economic growth to Troy, would need to take advantage of the tourist trade. Visitors from the west and north of Troy must pass through downtown on the way to Glacier National Park.
It started with an apple festival, Chris and Shawna organized what has become an annual festival to encourage local residents to pick their apple trees. Bears are a fixture in this part of the country and they love nothing more than camping out for a weekend in a backyard apple tree. You can imagine how dangerous that is. Picking the trees is not just a way to get delicious apples. It is an act of conservation. Bears and backyards don’t mix when the trees are left unpicked. Bears do get some free apples, but they also are much more likely to get relocated or shot in order to protect the public from encounters that are too close for comfort.
The founders faced other problems when coming up with an enterprise that could provide jobs in their economically depressed area, while also preserving a way of life that revolves around communing in nature. Troy’s a small town, it’s hard to launch viable businesses in small towns. But the founders knew that if they could capitalize on the tourists and the way of local life, they might just be able to make it.
The public lands that make up the majority of the holdings around Troy are home to dozens of wild botanicals that can be legally and sustainably harvested with a federal permit. The business idea that emerged out of this unique set of circumstances is a distillery pink bench distilling to be exact. The founders will make apple brandy while botanical gin, liqueurs, and other spirits.
The founders purchased a building in town and are in the process of building out the distillery and a family-friendly tasting room that will serve food and also nonalcoholic beverage options. As the distillery grows, it will be able to offer employment to locals who want to gather the ingredients that will be used in the making of spirits. This takes advantage of a population that is both underemployed and keen to be out in the beautiful landscape that defines this part of of the country.
The founders wanted to fund the business using investment crowdfunding so they could go one step further and invite their fellow residents and others who love Montana, a chance to be an investor. When people reward innovation that is designed to contribute to the greater good, not exploit it, true impact is possible.
MedFire Innovations is a medical device company born out of a desire to support the ideas and solutions of first responders and other front-line healthcare workers. Medfire helps doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and public safety professionals with feasibility studies, concept development, design and manufacturing, small batch prototype production, verification and validation testing, FDA clearance and approval, and IP and branding. Frontline workers often know what is missing in any given treatment protocol or safety threat but they do not have the requisite knowledge to take a concept from a cocktail napkin to manufacturing.
In addition to the product innovation arm of MedFire, the company aims to be a powerful medical expo organizer focused on connecting the networks and sales prospects developed by industry workers. Finally, through Medfire jobs, the company will deploy its proprietary matching technology to help workers and companies identify one another.
MedFire develops its own products like the self-pap device for cervical cancer screening a woman can use on her own to collect the samples necessary to test for this potentially deadly illness. The device was developed to make it easier for women who face cultural barriers to testing and a lack of access to medical treatment facilities.
The Williams Key is an emergency passive entry device used by first responders to gain quick access into buildings and houses. The device was invented by a firefighter who wanted to find a way to get in quick without damaging the property. With the help of MedFire, this product was able to be developed and is now sold to others in public safety. The device is used to toggle the strike of a lock without damaging it. It makes entry into burning buildings faster when every second counts.
The founder chose to share the investment offering in his company with the crowd because it resonated with him as very compatible with his mission to democratize access to innovation. Finance is a big part of that world, and it makes sense to the founder to include anyone looking to support disruptive healthcare practices and products.
Finally, I want to tell you about one more prosocial enterprise that is looking to do well and do good. The Super Crowd, Inc. is a new company formed to advance impact crowdfunding. The founder has witnessed firsthand the struggle many people have to actually align their investments with their values. So-called “Impact Investing” is all the rage but that term can be meaningless when the ripple effect of these investments is to advance the very ills the company claims to be fighting. Super Crowd founder Devin Thorpe has been an advocate for investment crowdfunding since the beginning in 2016. Devin is an experienced finance professional and an impact-minded multi-media influencer. Devin knows that if we ever hope to change the power dynamics in our economy, we are going to have to change who does the funding. Investment crowdfunding allows regular people, not just professional investors, to size up the offerings on all the regulation crowdfunding sites. Devin encourages regular people without direct investment experience to join a free or low-cost investment club where individuals share the work of vetting the offerings and conducting due diligence. Impact Cherubs and Angels of Main Street are two examples of such clubs and many more are starting to emerge.
At the SuperCrowd 2023 event in May, there will be lots of information sessions and an opportunity to hear from 10 prosocial enterprises that have live investment crowdfunding campaigns. Grant funds from sponsors will be available for awarding investment prize dollars.
In conclusion, I hope we can continue the conversation about the power dynamics at work in our local business districts and small towns. When we recognize the ways we are inadvertently contributing to our country’s economic and social decline, we can begin to consider investing in the ripples we want to encourage.